Working With Difficult People

Working with difficult people is a challenge every leader will face at some point in their career. This article provides five tips on how to handle difficult people.

Have you read Part one of this article? Get the first three tips on how to handle difficult people. Here's what we are going to cover in this article:

Tip Four: Don't Just Single Out Poor Performers

A mistake many leaders make is to hold performance improvement discussions with just low performers. Let's make sure you don't make that mistake!

Learn from elite sports coaches - Coach Up the entire team, all year

Elite sports coaches don't just talk to their team members at the start of the year, telling them what their roles and goals are, then disappear into the office for the rest of the season. Then come out at Grand Final time and ask them what went wrong that they aren't in the Grand Final! 

Instead, sports coaches provide feedback, instruction, and inspiration throughout the year. Week in, week out. They coach up their stars, their regular, and their weaker performers.

If you've been an 'avoider' of providing performance feedback - now is the time to declare your intent to change.

Have a meeting with your entire team and share your commitment to creating a high-performance workplace and your vision (which you read about in Tip 1) for making it a great place to work.

Absolutely avoid giving the message you are going to shape everyone up! Think more of yourself as a sporting coach.


Coach Up your stars, your regular performers, and your poor performers. 

If poor performers aren't able to come up to standard

then you must coach them out

Be inspiring

The message you want to give to your team is ... "let's be the 'rockstars' in our industry. I want us to focus on moving toward our potential as individuals and as a team".

Get them involved in a vision for making this the best place to work. A place where they can shine a spotlight on their potential. Encourage them that your hope is they will want to be a part of making it happen.

That you want to coach them to be rockstars in your team, your company, your industry!

Of course, expect some cynicism, especially if you've previously been mediocre at handling under-performers. Don't let that stop you. Stay focused on and committed to your vision!

Be consistent and regular

You can avoid working with difficult people if, on a regular and consistent basis, you let people know how they are going. You can do this easily during normal day-to-day activities by acknowledging when people are doing well, as well as providing performance-gap feedback. Do so as soon as you observe a change (either good or bad) to reinforce what you want and where you are heading.

Certainly, you don't want to come across as an annoying cheerleader or a carping criticizer - in any of these conversations (formal or informal). Make sure your tone is easy, your approach/mindset is "I'm wanting to help you be at your absolute best" and encourage not discourage.

To be clear:  If you haven't been holding regular performance improvement discussions with ANYONE in your team, then don't just single out the poor performers. Coach up the high performers to more of their potential as well.

Tip Five: Hold Regular, More Formal Coach Up Meetings

Setting up a 'formal' one-on-one with each of your team members, to talk about what is and isn't working helps you and the team to achieve excellence. Of course, this 'formal' one-on-one doesn't replace your daily interactions, where you are guiding and inspiring your people.

I strongly encourage all leaders I coach to set up regular (monthly at a minimum) meetings where they sit down quietly for 15-30 mins with each of their team members to talk about things like:

  • what is going well
  • what is stopping them from performing at their best (including their behaviors and skillsets and the systems, policies, processes, procedures that interfere with great performance)
  • what plans they have to overcome any challenges
  • how you, the  leader could help them with these challenges (as a barrier buster not as a problem fixer. Empower them to fix the majority of their issues)
  • what they are doing to ensure they are having and getting the best possible work experience
  • what you are doing that hinders their performance

Yes, they may arrive with an entirely different list from yours. However, this can set you up for a robust and frank discussion.

Let them know:

  • that you will be preparing for the meeting in the same way
  • your hope is that out of each meeting, together you will decide an action plan that will enable each person to continuously improve their performance
  • and that this discussion helps them be part of creating a great place to work

Keeping people engaged at work means showing them that you see them as their best and you expect nothing less. For more on how to run successful regular one-on-one meetings (without running out of topics to talk about) check out the One-On-One Meetings Training

Set up the formal Coach Up meetings

Now set up meetings with each individual. Experience suggests the best way to do this to:

  • talk with your high performers first
  • then the medium performers
  •  and finally the low performers

There are a few reasons for doing it this way.

Firstly, people look to see who is getting the most attention and use this to decide which group has the most power. Talking to high performers first sends a clear message that this is where your focus is going to be.

Isn't it ironic that the vast majority of most leaders' time is spent with poor performers and working with difficult people? And with only the occasional nod to people who are doing a great job?! High-performance team leaders give MOST attention to their best and mid-line performers.

Secondly, the high performers will let others know that having the one-to-one is 'no biggy' and that they are excited by where you are going as a team.

Thirdly, it gives you, the leader, the chance to practice your skills in holding performance feedback discussions, guiding the conversation in the direction you want and strengthens YOU before you begin working with difficult people.

You can expect weaker performer(s) to arrive with little, to no performance improvements and to push back quite firmly against any negative feedback you give them. They are also likely to blame systems and others for their poor performance, rather than their behaviors and skills.

To have had training in a program like Successful Feedback will enable you to handle this discussion. I won't kid you. Working with difficult people is never easy. But with some skills, you can certainly tackle the conversations with a degree of calmness and confidence.

Make sure you aren't part of the problem

Finally, don't be afraid of asking what you do that hinders. Remember the saying, 'the truth shall set you free'.

Sure there may be things they don't want you to do and that you AREN'T going to stop doing. That's okay. Simply be clear about what you are willing to change and what you aren't.

Be willing though, to listen with an open mind and look carefully at the things they say you are doing that hinders them. If the feedback is consistent across the team, it is something you should give strong consideration to modifying.

Tip Six: Recognize and Acknowledge the Right Performance

Well, if you aren't aware that acknowledging good performance influences people's motivation, you've probably been hiding under a bushel for the past 30 years.

However, the most important distinction is that you are recognizing and acknowledging the 'right' performance.

This leader got it sooo wrong ...

Some time ago, I happened to be present where a client presented an award to a team member for the highest number of 'customer care calls.' As this person went up to receive his award the reactions from his teammates were unmistakable. Dismay, frustration and a lot of eye-rolling.

On checking with the team members about the reaction I'd seen, it unfolded that this team member had been the worst performer in the team, (on many levels), for a long time. Several of the team members commented that he got the 'highest number of calls' by getting people off the phone quickly.

He didn't deal with customer problems adequately. Customers had to call back several times to get their issues resolved. 

This meant their complaint rate had gone up. And this was mostly due to that team member. Ouch!

When I queried the leader, he said he 'wanted to give the guy some acknowledgment for something.' He hoped this might motivate him to improve his performance!

All it managed to do was to alienate the rest of the team. It reinforced with them, and the poor performer, that this leader wasn't on top of the operation, the behaviors needed for the team to run well, and that people could pretty much get away with anything.

Do make sure that you acknowledge the 'softer' side of performance. When people use behaviors that are aligned with the company's values and mission, let them and others know that this is an important part of your company's success. 

Making a song and dance about people getting the values and behaviors part right certainly makes others sit up and take notice.

Tip Seven: Be Kind, Then Be Easy About Awkward!

Many people avoid addressing poor performers because it can get awkward. Awkward for the person giving the feedback, and challenging for the person receiving it.

However, a high-performance leader knows that, in the long-term, the kindest thing they can do is let a person know about behaviors that are holding their success back... so they have the choice to change.

Do You want me to be kind or truthful?

When you ask most people this question, they respond with truthful. Your job is to do both.

You are not kind when you hold back from others information that could be harming their success.

For example, wouldn't you like to know that others see you as divisive and rude ... when you see yourself as a person who challenges and generates discussions.

Or as a dithering marshmallow ... when you see yourself as someone who goes along to support team unity?

Wouldn't you want to know that this perception is putting the brakes on your career?

If you can't coach up - then coach out

Remember this when working with difficult people: the only person you can change is YOU. So if they don't want to change, there is little you can do about it -- other than invite them to work elsewhere!

Tip Eight: Use your Organization's Performance Systems To Coach Out

If someone shows a pattern of not meeting expectations then it is important that you follow the processes your organization uses to handle poor performers and manage someone out of your business.

Give the person every opportunity to get it right. Tell them that you know they can meet the performance needs (both socially and technically) of the business if they want to do it. However, if they make the choice to not meet expectations then you must take action and more importantly the team must see that you are taking action to handle this situation.

A hallmark of high-performance organization is that performance improvement systems are in place and used frequently

In Summary

Working with difficult people is challenging for any leader. But, have faith that, as you learn how to handle difficult people well, you can help them to either improve their performance or find opportunities elsewhere. And what a wonderful gift this is to give to yourself, your people, your business and the poor performer.

You are giving them the gift of being able to find something that might make them happier. 

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